Markus Sotirianos

Between “What do I need that for?” and “Didn’t you learn that in theory class?” – Questions and Observations in German Undergraduate Music Theory Classes

These two often heard phrases point to a recurring dilemma in the everyday life of students: on the one hand, the purpose of spending a lot of time studying music theory is unclear to many students, on the other hand the learning content does not seem to meet the expectations of their instrumental professors. The result is often frustration on all sides.

The teaching of music theory in undergraduate studies at German ‘Musikhochschulen’ finds itself in many areas of conflict: institutional and structural conditions, as well as questions regarding the content need to be considered; in addition, there exist different demands, prejudices and expectations towards this specialist field. What does music theory achieve, what should it achieve? Which kind of understanding of music theory is therefore the basis?
The mentioned statements illustrate that in many places various attempts to establish a commonly understandable and comprehensible perception of music theory, which is profitable for one's own musical practice, have not yet been successfully established. They also indicate a problem that clearly lies deeper: aside from degree courses and examination regulations, even among music theory teachers there is no common sense of which content, abilities and knowledge should be the goal of a basic education for undergraduates in music theory.
It would be necessary to look beyond national frontiers to explore whether the mentioned problems are simply the result of the course structure at German ‘Hochschulen’ or in fact part of the nature of the subject itself. The attempt of a baseline study made by this paper could be an initial impulse for a transnational discourse.